Like all good tales, it started with revenge. A scorned lover decided to teach her husband a lesson by dousing his chicken dinner with a heaping handful of hot peppers. Little did she know that her burning act of subterfuge would result in the birth of Nashville hot chicken, an addictive country staple that’s been lashing tongues in the South and beyond. Now, the regional dish has come to LA, courtesy of Howlin’ Ray’s, a newly-arrived force of nature adjacent to Pok Pok Phat Thai, located in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza.
“I’m not a creator,” says chef Johnny Ray Zone, an LA native who has worked under the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Nobu Matsuhisa, and Thomas Keller. “I didn’t invent hot chicken, and I’m not from Nashville. But it’s something I fell in love with so much, and that’s the reason why I’m doing it. It blew my mind.”
Falling in love with chicken makes you do questionable things. Sometimes, that involves leaving a steady restaurant gig at La Poubelle to stage for a week in the South, pledging allegiance to the Fraternal Order of Hot Chicken, drinking Pepto Bismol with your coffee, and maxing out all your credit cards to start up a hot chicken food truck, and then, a brick-and-mortar. With his mind suf ciently blown, Zone opened up Howlin’ Ray’s, its name an homage to both blues singer Howlin’ Wolf and Zone’s late father, Ray Zone.
Here’s what Zone loves so much about Nashville hot chicken: pieces of chicken are fried whole, with bones attached, in quarter sections. The bird is cooked in the re longer and at a lower temperature, which results in juicier meat and ultra-crunchy skin. And of course, there’s the hot, hot heat. A blend of some of the world’s hottest peppers deliver a supremely spicy kick to the mouth. For his recipe, Zone uses habaneros, ghost peppers, Trinidad scorpions, the dreaded Carolina Reaper, and of course, a healthy dose of cayenne. Top it off with some pickles and serve with a slice of white bread.
So far, volume has been the biggest challenge for Howlin’ Ray’s. “As soon as we open at 11, there’s no looking back until 5:30,” says Zone. “I can’t step off the line, so I need to be ready to go, especially since it’s an open kitchen. We have very little room for error.”
The 500 square-foot eatery serves up nearly a thousand pounds of chicken per week to an obscenely long line that’s been wrapping around the corner of Far East Plaza since the beginning, and so far, it doesn’t look like business is going to be losing steam anytime soon. Customers ask about extending the restaurant’s limited hours, but for now, Zone and his team are devoted to prepping for the next day’s battle, perfecting operations, and getting stronger everyday.
“It’s gonna be a constant challenge, as long as we’re blessed with the same amount of customers,” says Zone. “I thought it would die down by now, but it’s been growing. And it’s been crazy.”
Written by Sophie He
Photographed by Caleb Thal